Words by Charlie Batten
To kick off a new year at the Badger, I thought what better way than to interview someone who has literally been there and done that in the world of sports journalism.
Adrian Williams spent a career spanning 40 years in sports journalism and media having written for the Daily Mail and produced BBC Radio 5 live as well as Match of the Day. He was kind enough to let me pick his brains about the world of sports media whilst sharing cups of tea, and we laughed at the fact this is the first time it hasn’t been him asking the questions.
How did you get your start in sports journalism and what kind of wanted you to get into it?
What got me to get into it was I was naive enough to think I might make it as a professional footballer when I was young, and then I realised pretty early on that that wasn’t going to happen. So, I just started thinking probably when I was in my early teens, well, if I can’t be a professional footballer, what’s the next best thing, writing about it? So, from then on, I was fairly zeroed in on, that’s what I wanted to do, probably from, I don’t know, age 13-14 onwards. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to get into sports straight away because then you have to get a grounding in general journalism first before you could specialise. When I was 16, my school did a two-week work experience option after you’ve done your O-levels. They made you put down two or three things you were interested in and I put down journalism. I also put down travel agents. If they sent me to a travel agency, who knows? It might never have happened. But luckily, they sent me to the Aldershot News for two weeks and it was just absolutely brilliant. I loved every minute of it. The staff there were wonderful. They really took me under their wing, took me out and all the jobs that they were going on, encouraged me to write it up as I would have written it up. They made very encouraging noises. And at the end of that two weeks the sports department at the news had a vacancy and they offered it to me, but my dad wouldn’t let me. He insisted that I stay and did my A-levels, which I was really disappointed because I was ready to go. But the compromise was I would write up a report on a local non-league game every Saturday and then the paper would publish it and that’s how it started. Then when I was ready to actually look for a job, I wrote around to all the local papers and I managed to get a job on the Surrey Advertiser in Guildford as a news reporter. And while I was doing that Monday to Friday, I still did the weekend, Saturday report for the Aldershot News. Then after three years they offered me the deputy sports editor job. And that started me off in full-time sports journalism.
You spent a long time as a journalist for the likes of the Press Association and the Daily Mail but then made the jump to producing, what spurred you to make that move?
Well, I was at the Press Association quite a long time and was very lucky to do top level games. I went to World Cups, European Championships, all those kind of things. Then I worked on the Daily Mail, which was a lifetime ambition as it was the paper I read growing up. And I had some fantastic sports writers in those days. The sports editor who hired me left and a new one came in who just didn’t like me, and it was just one of those things where we clashed quite a lot. Like a football team manager really, new manager comes in, doesn’t like certain players, wants his own backroom staff and head coach and the rest of it. I was sports news editor at the time so I was quite close to sports editor and we just couldn’t work together, we just butted heads and there was only going to be one loser, me. I had always quite fancied working in radio and I’d actually applied to the BBC a couple of times over the years and not got anywhere. So, this time I thought, “well, I’ve got nothing to lose now” because I knew I was going to leave the Mail. So, I applied to the BBC radio sport again, and this time I managed to get in.
What was it like when you first became a producer?
So, it was a massive change of gear because I didn’t get into the radio until I was 40. So basically, split my career in two, it was 20 years in written journalism and 20 years in broadcast journalism. So initially it was a massive change because, you know, I knew bugger all really, I was very lucky to get the job. I think it was my journalistic background that got me the job, because at that time, BBC sport felt they didn’t have enough journalistically trained people working for them. So, I think that’s really why they hired me, because they wanted somebody with a bit of journalistic nous and a bit of experience in digging up stories for Radio five live. They launched the channel in the 90’s and wanted much more sports news, much more studio chat, because they were much more sports heavy stations. And I think they felt that my journalistic background would help with that. And fortunately, that’s the way it turned out.
What was your experience with 5 Live?
I started off with a Sunday morning show called Sports Week which was presented by a guy called Brian Alexander, who was another former Fleet Street sports journalist. So, we really hit it off. I was his producer and he was the presenter and the sports news background really paid off because we just used to get backgrounders or in-depth and find something different on the week’s sports news which became quite successful. Quite often stuff we generated would get picked up by the next day’s newspapers. I moved on from there and the jewel in the crown was the Saturday Afternoon five Live Sports Show, which is on from midday till 6:00. So, it’s six hours of live sport. A lot of it is seat of the pants, especially the five-to-six-hour sports report where you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen. So, you’re making up the running order as you go. You’re requesting interviews on the hoof. You might be teeing up a live interview with a presenter. That was a fantastic buzz. That was one of the best buzzes ever, I think in live sport. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up even talking to you about it. When you’re in the chair and it’s your call, what happens. You’ve got probably 25 reporters at all the Premier League games. There might be rugby going on, there might be cricket. If it’s during the Ryder Cup, you’ve got golf going on, so you’re diving between all these different events and it’s your call where you go next. You’re briefing the presenter and you see what’s coming up next, prompting whatever. It’s a fantastic buzz.
So, after radio you moved into television, how did that come about?
So, yeah, I got to a point where I’d been doing just radio about maybe 10 years and I just really fancy a change. And the good thing was at the BBC, then you could ask to do an attachment in another department. So, I asked if I could do some time in television sports and they let me. So, I did a three-month attachment in television sport to start with, and that went well. I kicked off by making features for football focus or editing match highlights for match of the day, and it went quite well so I asked if I could carry on doing it and they said yes. I did a period where I did basically telly all the time.
So, when you compare TV and radio production, is one more fluid than the other, is one more structured? Were they very different?
Yes and no, I mean, I always looked at it as if you’re still telling a story and that’s the basis of it. So, again, it comes back to the journalism. That journalism that you learn over the years in terms of telling the story, first of all you’re telling it with written words, then you’re telling the spoken word, then you’re telling it with pictures. So, the basic core of what you’re doing is always the same, in my opinion. The real nub of it is still storytelling. I think it’s just using different mediums to tell the story.
What is the biggest difference for when you started to know such as technology, but also social media now that’s a major factor in the world of sports journalism?
Well, yeah, that’s actually massive because when I started, I started in full time journalism in 1975 so obviously there’s no Internet, there’s no mobile phones, there’s no social media. So, it’s literally a notepad, a typewriter, and a telephone. That’s it. For a local paper, you would go out whatever story you were sent on, you would fill your notebook up and then you’d come back to the office and you type it up. If you were working for somebody like the Press Association, where the demand for copy was usually instant, then you would dictate it down the telephone to a copy taker. So, if you’re at a football match, you’d obviously have a phone on your desk in front of you and you would just ring the copy taker up and you just dictate your report down the line to the copy taker. Often, we used to have to do running copy, i.e., you are filing while the match is going on. So, a lot of that was just ad-libbed. I actually really enjoy doing that because the modern game, they’re all typing up on their laptops, so they must be watching a lot less of the game because you’re always looking down at your laptop. But back then if you’re out in an interview somewhere and it was needed early, you’d be finding the nearest phone box literally, and then you’d be getting pissed off people outside the phone box banging on the door when you’ve been in there for 20 minutes following your report. But that was it. And then once you’d signed off, you were uncontactable. So, say you say you were to an evening football match, you’d file your report, then you’d go down and do the post-match interviews. You come back to the phone; you dictate the post-match interviews down the line. Then you phone the sports desk. Any queries? If they said no, the phone went down by. That’s it. You’ve gone down the pub and you’re uncontactable, whereas obviously today you’re contactable 24/7 because everybody’s got a mobile phone. And social media I didn’t really have to get too involved with because working in radio or television, you were much more conscious of just getting your stuff on air and producing live programmes. So, the website was more the outlet for social media. So, BBC Sport website, obviously now they have massive interaction with their readers, people who send in tweets and comments and all the rest of it.
Obviously through the fact that everyone has social media, you can almost contact the player directly, but at the same time it also is seemingly much harder to get proper responses from them because now they are behind this wall of PR, what was it like when you could just go up to them and talk to them?
It’s very true. Back then, clubs barely had a press officer. So really, if you wanted to do an interview with a player, you just turned up at the training ground and when the players walked off after training, you could just collar them and say, could you give us ten minutes? And sometimes they said no, but usually they would say yes. And that was pretty common across all the top clubs, even your Man United or you Liverpool or whatever it is, rock up and you could grab any player, even England. After they finished training, most of the players would come into this room and sort of mingle around and you could grab whoever you wanted. If you had an idea and you had to speak to whoever it was, you could just chat with them. Nowadays it’s all stage managed; the national team will choose what player they’re going to put up. And as you say, there’s a wall of players in front of them and it’s very difficult to get through it, actually. You get what you’re given. Back then you’d often go ask a player for his home phone number. With that manager the same, managers who didn’t even know you, you could just rock up at the ground. One story I remember that sticks in my mind was when Aston Villa won the European Cup in 1982. Ron Saunders was the manager who had taken almost all the way through and then he quit and a guy called Tony Barton took over. And so, the day before a European Cup quarterfinal, I just rocked up at the villa training ground, accosted Tony Barton as he was coming off the track to training because he didn’t know me from Adam. “Any chance I could have ten minutes?” “Yeah, no problem”. So as soon as he had his shower, we sat down in his office, a cup of coffee he gave me half an hour. Couldn’t have been nicer. That sort of stuff just doesn’t happen these days. Even England manager Bobby Robson, same thing. There was a story that broke. I remember on a Sunday lunchtime; I was at home. The office rings. “Oh, this has happened. Can you go to the England Hotel, see if you can call in and ask what’s going on?” He was just walking into his lunch when I got there. “Really sorry, Bobby. Any chance I could talk about it?” “Yeah. Yeah. OK, then.” Anyway, an hour later I’m still there filling my notebook. Couldn’t shut him up. It was fantastic.
You had a long career and did various events. What would you say was your personal highlight of everything?
I think I’m probably in terms of the sheer buzz and what it meant and being involved with it was the day that England won five one on Germany in the World Cup qualifier in Munich. And for my generation, we always lost to the Germans
and still now.
Yeah, well, indeed. Since the 1966 World Cup, the Germans always beat us and it was always heartbreak. We went over there. We had a really good day. We were on air at 12 o’clock and the match didn’t kick off till 5:00. So, we really had to work hard on keeping the interest going and building up and building it up. And we had a good day. All our guests came off and then the match itself. England went one down and finished up, winning five one. And it was the only time I actually lost my professionalism. I actually jumped out my chair in the studio and nearly garrotted myself with my headphone cable when the fifth goal went in. But it was such a fantastic buzz. And to be, kind of at the helm, of our output when that happened, it was such a monumental thing especially for people of my generation that we won five one in Germany.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into sports journalism or media and what to do if they really feel a passion for it?
I think you firstly, don’t give up because you’ll get a lot of knock backs initially because it’s such a popular field. You’ve got to really put yourself about, you’ve got to knock on a lot of doors. You’ve got to send a lot of emails. See if you can get work experience or see if you can spend a day shadowing somebody. That’s something that a lot of organisations are willing to do. If you write in and say you were a media student, could I come and spend a day shadowing an outside broadcast at a football match or in the studio watching a programme go out or anything like that? Then once you’ve met one person, they might put you on to another person and that’s how it evolves. Then building contacts is really important as well. Make sure you kind of introduce yourself to everybody there. See if you get a couple of email addresses and see if you can come back or if one email address can lead to another email address. I think the big thing really is just to be persistent and just keep knocking on the door, trying to get an opportunity. And if you get the opportunity, you’ve got to give it everything.